HASTINGS, NEB., FEB. 20 -- Flames and smoke engulfed the crew car on Amtrak's westbound California Zephyr today as the train pulled into a station with 294 passengers, killing an Amtrak cook and injuring 19 other people, officials said.
Amtrak and fire officials said the heroic efforts of two conductors, J.P. Jones and Tod Witaker, who quickly uncoupled the burning dorm car from the rest of the train and pulled unconscious crew members to safety, probably saved several lives. Six crew members who were in the car survived.
Smoke also filled an adjoining passenger sleeping car behind the crew car.
State Fire Marshal Wally Barnett said a short in an electrical wire connected to a heating system in the crew car triggered the 2:35 a.m. blaze as the 14-car train pulled into Hastings station.
But an Amtrak spokesman in Washington, John Jacobsen, said Amtrak investigators suspect that some kind of combustible material stored near the heater caught fire.
Nineteen Amtrak employees and passengers were taken to Mary Lanning Hospital, where 12 were admitted and seven were treated and released. Those admitted included nine employees and three passengers with conditions ranging from satisfactory to good.
Barnett said smoke alarms on the train could have prevented the death of Cesar Arguelles, 70, of Chicago. Arguelles, the chef for the dining car, died from smoke inhalation, authorities said.
Passengers said they received no warning of the fire, and Hastings Fire Chief J.C. Mitera said the rescue of those trapped inside was hampered by intense heat from the flames, dense smoke and passengers blocking a key exit.
Mitera said firefighters also had difficulty opening emergency exit windows because they were unable to see the latches.
"When I opened the curtain of the sleeper you could just see smoke in the hallway," passenger Pete Trimble of Cleveland said. "So I grabbed my coat and ran. When I got outside you could see flames coming from the car in front of us."
Mitera said uncoupling the cars was a crucial move that helped keep the fire from spreading.
The train, which started in Chicago, continued en route to Salt Lake City, where it is split into separate trains to Oakland, Calif.; Los Angeles, or Seattle.